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Han van der Maas | On the exploitation of PhD-students

Han van der Maas,
9 mei 2023 - 09:52

Junior lecturers may complain about temporary appointments, but at least they get paid for their hours. That is far from always the case for delayed PhD-students, who through no fault of their own sometimes have to live on loans or exhaust their hard-earned savings, points out Han van der Maas, who comes up with a solution.

There is a lot to be said about lecturers on temporary contracts. The UvA has implemented a general policy, based on local malpractices, that I hope we will not regret. The need for university teaching depends on student interest and it is variable. Also, young teachers are not the worst off. The workload may often be high and future prospects uncertain, but they do get paid for their work. Quite obvious, you will think, after all, the UvA pays people for their hours. Well, no!


That is not the case for hundreds of PhD-students whose contracts have ended but whose PhD-track has not yet begun. In a remarkable number of research departments, it is the most normal thing in the world for PhD-students to continue working on social benefits, on their savings, or the salary of their next job and thus with a double workload. According to all kinds of studies, the delay takes an average of one year but I know of cases of many years.


While it is true that the UvA Executive Board allows these practices, it is not directly responsible for them. The villains are the professors. In fact, the delayed PhD-students are entirely dependent on the supervisors. The only alternative for the PhD-student is to quit the PhD which means the end of the academic career. All the sweat is then for nothing. So let's keep going. After eight rewrites, chapter four has become slightly better. And that data set is still there, a great shame!


Shame on you!

It is remarkable that there are no hard requirements for the dissertation at all. Nowhere does it say how many chapters the dissertation must consist of. Whether the dissertation is sufficient is determined by the promoters and, in theory, also by the dissertation committee but they almost always agree. I know PhD-students who just can't get their fourth article accepted and therefore are not allowed to submit their dissertation. Others have not yet completed all the studies promised by the supervisor in an "over the top" grant proposal. And in many cases, chapters are waiting for feedback from promoters who have long ago lost interest in the project. Finally, delays are often calculated in. It seems to be the goal in all sorts of places that after four years only the data are collected, you do the writing after your contract. Promoters who adhere to this policy: shame on you!


If the promotion does come off, the blame for the delay is placed entirely on the doctoral student. Promotion delay looks bad on your resume in follow-up applications. No one then talks about the promoters who caused the delay. After all, as members of application committees, we have to stay a little nice to each other. That is also important.



In my department, we have put a heavy-handed end to this practice. It is very simple. After one year the appointment is either renewed or not until the end (four years!). This is a tough decision because if the promoters sign off on it there is no turning back. One year before the end of the contract, PhD-students and supervisors must come for an audience with the research director. They have to show in detail what the content of the dissertation will be, which chapters are still to be completed (and especially which are not) and what the month-to-month plan entails. One thing is certain: the dissertation will go to committee before the contract expires. If not, the promoters arrange for extra money to extend the contract. If necessary, from their own savings.


Han van der Maas is full professor of psychological methods.